SUDHANSU MOHANTY | 31 AUGUST, 2018
When Sitharaman lashed out at a state minister
Never in my fallible memory of independent India’s past had one witnessed the kind of brazen, even puerile, behaviour displayed by the nation’s Raksha Mantri (RM) Nirmala Sitharaman, as she kept ticking off the Karnataka Minister-in-charge of Kodagu district, Sa Ra Mahesh, in Kodagu.
It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to discern her mind and face (though this wasn’t the first time she was being rude in public; look up the video of her interaction in her own alma mater JNU) – such was the insolence and impertinence. But beyond this incident, there are aspects that need gleaning from this venting of spleen in full public glare.
The Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister later ticked her off that amounted to saying that it smacks of her poor understanding of federal democratic Indian polity. Is the Central minister superior to a State minister? Well, the Constitution doesn’t say so. In a federal polity the Centre and the States are two different entities with neither subordinate to the other. So the “minute-to minute” schedule drawn up for the RM and her following the State minister’s suggestions isn’t so “Unbelievable!” as made out by her. Yikes!
It spoke volumes about her persona, her intolerance and her claim to superiority for occupying a ministerial berth in the central government. Were her amour propre a virtue this clearly was a self-goal.
Sitharaman’s rise in her party and government has been meteoric. Within years of joining the BJP in 2006, she became the party’s national spokesperson. In May 2014, she joined the Modi government as a junior minister in the finance and corporate affairs ministry; shortly thereafter was elevated as MoS commerce and industry ministries with independent charge. And in 3 years time made the RM in Sept 2017 – one of the 4 prized ministries in India. Is there anything here that points to her behaviour on display? Does it hold a key to explain her arrogance? Perhaps.
Anyone who has watched ministers up close can tell the behavioral pattern of the newbies vis-à-vis the experienced ones. For a start, there is the thrill and hilarity of having arrived! From nothing of consequence to everything of consequence in the national, even international, sphere of his/her preserve – this is a huge leap. The world seems an oyster. Supplicants overnight deem them as demi-gods. Repeated elevations within short time spans can doubly be very heady and intoxicating.
Human minds can only soak in offerings bit by tiny bit; it can’t be fast-forwarded in a jiffy beyond a point without the protuberance showing. When you head one of the Ministries in the North/South Block on the putative Raisina Hill, it can make you feel a part of emerging India’s history-in-the-making, no more a mere footnote. The history-writing and the full panoply of regalia will come later though! But that doesn’t mean you can’t flex your recently-conferred muscle and let your self-worth run the distance in the real world; and by extension, in the virtual world to traverse the world-wide-web.
The MoD is omnifarious and literally the melting pot of the most diverse cross-section of people drawn from multiple services you’ll ever encounter in any ministry, and quite naturally with sundry and often conflicting viewpoints. It’s truly a microcosm of argumentative India and Indians – a Tower of Babel. Intolerance, impatience, petulance, peevishness, short fuses aren't the stuff that define the ministry. Instead, it’s a combination of tact, maturity, equanimity, forbearance and grace that it is founded on.
So how then a citizen view Sitharaman’s lashing out at the Karnataka minister? “I am following a minute-to-minute programme, minister… Madam decide nahe madta. Ap log decide madte.” Sitharaman bristles sarcastically, grimacing in anger and verbal tic, her face twitched and contorted.
“If officials are important, my parivaar is also important.... Central minister follows the minister in-charge here. Unbelievable!” When told the conversation was being recorded on cameras, she shot back with callous vehemence “Let it get recorded…” And as the camera rolled, she still couldn’t hold back, “Han han, mike on bhi he na. Record kar lo jitna chaheye”. Was the frustration of a non-BJP government in Karnataka showing?
As an afterthought and to control the damage the swirling clip trending through the evening and the day next, she got the MoD to quickly issue a clarification. This is a trifle intriguing: since this had little to do with the MoD, how did the ministry come in aside from the clarification being a tad lame and disingenuous?
Worse, it piggy rides on ex-servicemen’s back and granting them a new moniker: parivaar. They will resent it; they’ll always like known as ex-servicemen or veterans. They’re a proud lot and deservedly so, would dislike getting subsumed under the parivaar nomenclature and get enmeshed in political squabbles – especially when in today’s polarized and high-octane times the very word carries a different connotation and not entirely kosher.
Never in my 37-year career as a part of MoD did I ever get to hear even once anyone refer or allude to them as parivaar. I guess it was a subtle ploy employed as a cover up and deflect attention from Sitharaman’s visit to the Seva Bharti camps run by the RSS.
The clarification sadly, far from limiting the damage, hasn’t gone down well. Citizens aren’t the fools that politicians think – they swiftly can see through the lies peddled as cover up. There is nothing sinister in the clip to say that “the district incharge minister… made certain personal remarks against the RM”. How did the minister’s remarks lower “the dignity of the upper house of the Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and show utter lack of regard and knowledge about the Indian Polity?” Pray, how?
Or, is this another instance of the cliché – after the crime comes the belligerence, of the empire striking back!
Granting for the sake of argument and to appreciate the issue that she was riled because she was made to change her programme at the instance of the Karnataka minister, did it behove of the RM to behave the way she did, more so when she was on a visit to the flood ravaged Kodagu district? These are extremely hard days for people in Kodagu as also in Kerala, and certainly not the time to squabble over superiority of one over the other minister. It calls for sobriety, sangfroid, compassion, grace, and magnanimity – not sparring and pettifogging.
Should we take a cue from the first-world democracies, we the citizens of this hierarchy-worshipping country though must take the blame for putting such public functionaries on a high pedestal. Far from deifying them, we need to demand unceasing accountability and good behaviour – and treat them as nothing more than as mere service providers, and refrain from putting them on the pulpit. They’re our representatives, elected directly or indirectly, with a mandate to serve us and the nation. But they have let us down. They aren’t public servants we think them to be. If some are inveterate narcissists, most others are private servants masquerading as public functionaries.
Far from genuflecting before them, they deserve to be hauled over on issues of public policy and service delivery, and not allowed to hedge with semantics and new high-falutin argots such as new normal and post-truth. They’re the sevaks and, quite rightly, PM Modi has called himself the pradhan sevak and en passant telling us to look at his ministers as nothing more than sevaks.
For the RM, this is the Modi-Karan Thapar's 2007 interview moment when Modi had abruptly sought the need to take water and rest, taken the mike off and walked out in high dudgeon. As TV channels rolled out the Sitharaman moment times without number, the whole incident despite the MoD's clarification showed her in mercilessly poor light – as graceless, mean, and crotchety.
It gnaws my heart, and I blanch at memories of the MoD that I carry in my head. Her testy behaviour was inappropriate to say the least – entirely unacceptable in any civilized world.
It least ennobles the nation’s RM – for today citizens see her more as the defence minister than as Sitharaman the politician. And now having watched the open spat-and-snap panning out under the strobe light, I worry how she’s discharging the onerous responsibility of the RM – managing the many disparate voices of sundry able professionals and the inexorable cacophony of views in the MoD with her edgy and waspish temperament and abrasive manners that was beamed in front of our very own eyes.
Cameras don’t lie, Hon’ble RM!
(Sudhansu Mohanty is a former Controller General of Defence Accounts and also a former Financial Adviser (Defence Services) in the Ministry of Defence who retired on May 31, 2016.He is the author , among other books, of Babudom: Catacombs of Indian Bureaucracy (Rupa, 2005; Babulog: Vignettes of Indian Bureaucrats (Rupa, 2006); & Babuspeak and Other Stories (Rupa, 2008).His last book Anatomy of a Tumour: A Patient's Intimate Dialogue with the Scourge (Hay House) was published in 2013).